Operation Shamrock: NSA’s First Domestic Spying Program Was Revealed by Congress in 1975

When asked if it was legal for NSA to read the telegrams of American citizens, the retired deputy director replied, “You’ll have to ask the lawyers.”

Operation Shamrock came to light in 1975 during investigations by the U.S. Senate into government intelligence abuses in the Nixon Administration. The committee, chaired by Sen. Frank Church (D-Idaho), learned that three telegraph companies had turned over all their overseas communications traffic, both outbound and inbound, to the National Security Agency (NSA) on a daily basis for 30 years.

The spy program was initiated in World War II as part of the government’s wartime censorship program, but by the 1970s, political operatives in the Nixon Administration were using it to collect information on their political enemies:

In 1945, US Government SIGINT operatives met with representatives of the three main telegraph companies – ITT World Communications, Western Union International and RCA Global (both now part of MCI Worldcom) – starting Operation Shamrock, a 30-year illegal coordinated program to spy on the electronic communications of American citizens. The telegraph companies each night packaged up the day’s transmissions and handed them to operatives who sent them to NSA headquarters in Virginia [it’s actually in Fort Meade, Maryland – Ed.] for analysis. During the Vietnam War the NSA used the information gathered to compile a watch-list (Codeword: MINARET) of more than 600 “dangerous” Americans, including folksinger Joan Baez, paediatrican Benjamin Spock, actress Jane Fonda and civil rights campaigner Dr Martin Luther King. The NSA claims in 1974 it destroyed files on more than 75,000 other Americans it illegally collected during Shamrock.

Shamrock and MINARET came to an end only in 1975 when they were uncovered by the Church Committee, the US Senate Select Committee into spy agencies.

Investigators for the Senate’s Church Committee included L. Britt Snider, who would later serve as a CIA Inspector General and more recently headed the 9/11 congressional inquiry for a short time — and Peter Fenn, who is now a regular on cable news pundit panels, ably representing the Democratic Party establishment.

In 1999, Brett Snider wrote a short essay titled “Unlucky Shamrock,” recounting the events that led to the revelation of the NSA’s first illegal domestic spying program. Snider recalls that the investigation started with a few fits and starts but eventually he came upon Dr. Louis Tordella, who was then in retirement but who had been a deputy director at the NSA where he had been very familiar with the Shamrock program:

Shamrock actually predated NSA, which was created by President Truman in 1952. It had been essentially a continuation of the military censorship program of World War II. Copies of foreign telegraph traffic had been turned over to military intelligence during the war, and, when the war ended, the Army Security Agency (ASA) sought to have this continue. All the big international carriers were involved, Tordella said, “but none of ’em ever got a nickel for what they did.”

But was it kosher?

I asked if NSA used the take from Shamrok to spy on the international communications of American citizens. Tordella responded, “Not per se…”

When I asked if it was legal for NSA to read the telegrams of American citizens, he replied, “You’ll have to ask the lawyers.”

Despite Tordella’s protestations that the telegraph companies were not compensated for their participation, Snider says Democratic senators on the Church Committee were focused on the companies’ involvement. But when executives from the three companies — ITT World Communications, Western Union International and RCA Global — testified before the Commision, they all denied knowledge of wrongdoing by the NSA:

All the company witnesses testified that their companies had assumed NSA was using the telegraph traffic only for foreign intelligence purposes. It did not occur to any of them that NSA might have used their access to look for the international telegrams of American citizens, nor were they aware that their companies had ever sought assurances from NSA on this point. Moreover, all were adamant that their companies had never received any compensation or favoritism from the government in return for their cooperation.

The senators were not appeased by this, and a decision was reached among them to release the names of the companies involved to the public:

In what I recall was largely a party-line vote, the Committee voted to ignore [President Ford’s] objections and to publish the report with the three companies identified therein. It remains to this day the only occasion I know of where a Congressional committee voted to override a presidential objection and publish information the President contended was classified.

In an article in the New York Times last February, key players in the Shamrock drama discussed its resolution, which led to the establishment of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA):

“Over the years there had been an erosion of presidential power and authority. The president of the United States needs to have his constitutional powers unimpaired, if you will, in terms of the conduct of national security policy. That’s my personal view.”
— Vice President Cheney, Dec. 2005

Frederick A. O. Schwarz Jr., who served as the [Church] committee’s chief counsel [and is an heir to the toy store fortune], recalled in an interview, “The question of how to handle N.S.A. was more divisive than anything else we did,” including extensive hearings on C.I.A. and F.B.I. abuses.

But in the end, the committee reached a broad consensus on most of its findings, including on the critical recommendation of banning eavesdropping in the United States without warrants, Mr. Schwarz said.

After the trauma of public hearings and front-page headlines, intelligence officials, too, were ready for new, clear rules. Adm. Bobby R. Inman, who testified before the Church Committee as director of naval intelligence and became N.S.A. director in 1977, said he worked actively for passage the next year of the FISA law, which required approval of a special court for eavesdropping on American soil.

“I became convinced that for almost anything the country needed to do, you could get legislation to put it on a solid foundation,” Admiral Inman said. “There was the comfort of going out and saying in speeches, ‘We don’t target U.S. citizens, and what we do is authorized by a court.'”

But not all agreed, then or now, that the president’s powers over foreign intelligence should be overseen by judges. While Vice President Cheney has not explicitly criticized the FISA statute, he has often said that laws passed in reaction to Vietnam and Watergate unjustifiably weakened the presidency.

“Over the years there had been an erosion of presidential power and authority,” Mr. Cheney told reporters on Dec. 20 when asked about the eavesdropping program. “The president of the United States needs to have his constitutional powers unimpaired, if you will, in terms of the conduct of national security policy. That’s my personal view.”

Former Senator Gary W. Hart, a Colorado Democrat who served on the Church Committee, believes views such as Mr. Cheney’s have set the clock back 30 years.

“What we’re experiencing now, in my judgment, is a repeat of the Nixon years,” Mr. Hart said. “Then it was justified by civil unrest and the Vietnam war. Now it’s terrorism and the Iraq war.”

As we noted yesterday, the Baltimore Sun reported about the maneuverings of two of President Ford’s key staffers in the aftermath of the Church Committee’s disclosure of Operation Shamrock:

President Gerald R. Ford extended executive privilege, which shielded those involved from testifying publicly, to the telecommunications companies on the recommendation of then chief-of-staff Dick Cheney and then-Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld.

The Sun sourced this statement to the Project on Government Oversight.


22 thoughts on “Operation Shamrock: NSA’s First Domestic Spying Program Was Revealed by Congress in 1975”

  1. Apparently the GOP learned all the wrong lessons from Nixon’s fall from grace. The GOP did not learn that keeping an “enemies list” and violating the constitutional rights of “dissent”; rather —it learned not to get caught. And even that lesson was not learned well.

  2. Trust no one! Not even NPR.
    Your dentist works for the NSA, the people who clean my pool are just trying to recover floride from 1960’s mind control experiments. My neighbor’s cat is actually a bio-remote data collector of allien origin, operating with the permission of Carl Rove. Tony Snow knows all about this, in fact Tony Snow is not human, that is why the podium he uses durring press appearrences is purged with argon gas. Just ask yourself, who stopped adding MTBE to gasoline? Well, lunch break is over and I’ve got to get back to digging for kryptonite or the republicans who enslaved me durring the late 1940’s at Roswell, NM will beat me again. Actually I can often avoid the beattings by doing my Joeseph Lieberman impression. It seems to make my captures laugh uncontrolably. I tried doing John Kerry on them but that seemed to really piss them off. Did you know that John Kerry was in Vietnam?

  3. Yea, we know about John Kerry in Vietnam and we also know he received a metal (unjustly) for his service there but that’s off topic. ATT might as well call themselves the NSA as they joined forces long ago in the eighties and house their spying equipment and recieve funding from the NSA. The NSA have been spying on Americans since 1952 so what’s new?

  4. There is one topic that has not been covered. That is, Why were some of these people targeted and What was their True intent. At the time (late 60’s) there were nationwide riots that resulted in many cities being put to the torch and looted. This required coordination and financing. Part of this program was to detect the members of this network and its foreign managers. I’ve been told that some of these connections led to members of congress. Enter the “Church commission”. Congress found out that the ASA was monitoring some of its members. The fall out was the FISA act and the deletion of the ASA. The truth was that there were members of congress that were part of this network. The purpose of the network was to destabilize the government during the Vietnam War (not unlike CIA operations of the time on other countries). To prevent the detection of any illegal activities of any member of congress, the FISA act requires that select members of congress is informed of any domestic spying. This allows them to block any detection of their illegal activities or foreign bribery or influence.

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